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New York Times: "[A] spare, elegant novel."

Date: Jan 6 2009

East Meets West, East Loses West
By Sarah Fay

The Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb’s latest autobiographical novel, Tokyo Fiancée, isn’t a love story; it’s a tale about koi — a term used in Japan for a sexual relationship free of the melodramatic trappings of love, founded on camaraderie rather than romance. As the novel’s narrator, also named Amélie, explains, love is serious and intense, but koi is “light, fluid, fresh . . . elegant, playful, funny.”

Koi is the only kind of relationship that Amélie can entertain. A 21-year-old Belgian, she has recently returned to the Japan of her childhood to refresh her language skills and tutor students in French. Her first and only client is Rinri, a young man who drives a “too-white Mercedes” and lives with his parents in the “luxurious neighborhood of Den-en-chofu.” Amélie is attracted to his “polite fatalism” and his interest in Sartre.

At first, she and Rinri have difficulty communicating. Her first attempt to speak to him in Japanese is “a flood of utterly meaningless, puerile gibberish involving a police officer, a dog and some cherry blossoms.” Rinri’s French vocabulary is scanty and his syntax poor; he also keeps “his mouth shut as if to hide ugly teeth.” But Amélie’s garrulousness somehow complements Rinri’s reticence, and they fall for each other.

Before they know it, they’ve embarked on a delightfully absurd affair. While Amélie indulges in koi, Rinri dabbles in love, that “very French élan”: “Rinri and I had each contracted the typical inclination of the other’s language . . . which all goes to show how admirably open we were to each other’s culture.” Amélie likens their relationship to the water bed they sometimes sleep on — “outmoded, uncomfortable and funny.”

Nothomb exoticizes Japanese culture without succumbing to Orientalist stereotypes. The situations she refreshingly depicts reveal Amélie’s education in the Japanese art of living. Rinri’s favorite pastime is “playing,” which Amélie misinterprets as treating life like a game. But asobu, “to play,” the way Rinri and his friends mean it, isn’t something that can be taught. “In Japanese,” an American woman tries to explain, “the minute you’re not working, it’s asobu.” Luckily, Amélie catches on quickly. In fact, she is catapulted into a euphoric state by something as simple as a stuffed pancake with plum sauce: “I was 5 years old again . . . my taste buds in a trance. I devoured my okonomiyakiand my eyes glazed over as I uttered faint little cries of delight.”

“Playing” is just the first of Amélie’s lessons. She also develops a fondness for fireworks and revels in “the fantastic number of strings” that form when she eats cheese fondue. She also demonstrates a willingness to “go there” when the most Rinri will divulge about their destination is “you’ll see.”

The weakest moments occur when the novel itself fails to “play,” when the narration feels overwrought rather than revelatory. After Rinri declares that his life was ruined after he failed his primary school exams, Amélie claims to hear the “symphony of stifled tears” of children throughout Tokyo. Earlier, she admitted to having a “megalomaniacal bent” to her lyricism. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between. For the most part, this spare, elegant novel unravels much the way Amélie describes the snow when she climbs Mount Kumotori: “Nothing is more mysterious than that which is unfolding before your eyes.”

Sarah Fay is an advisory editor at The Paris Review.

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